Floating vs. Fixed

Just hammerers

Floating vs. Fixed

Postby ArdieDavis » Tue May 11, 2004 6:36 pm

I was at a dulcimer festival this weekend, and a well known hammered dulcimer maker was overheard advising his potential customers to ''stay away from floating soundboard dulcimers.'' All of his dulcimers are fixed top. I was wondering what the hammered dulcimer community's experiences are with floating and fixed top hammered dulcimers. For example, what is your own experience with the following: * Tuning stability * Structural integrity * Tonal quality * Sustain * Cracking or splitting * Replacing soundboards * Susceptibility to changes caused by humidity or temperature * Aesthetics * other thoughts? Do you have a preference? If so, why?
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Postby marcy » Tue May 11, 2004 6:47 pm

My experience is pretty limited. I knew two people with floating soundboard Websters that seemed extraordinarily quiet. On the other hand, I now have two students with floating soundboard Cloud Nines, which are quite loud. Rick Thum advertises his dulcimer as combining the best characteristics of both floating and fixed soundboards, though he doesn't specify what those best characteristics are. The two dulcimers I've owned were both fixed. Both hold their tuning quite well -- one was James Jones and the current one is Jerry Read Smith / Song of the Wood. My other handful of students all also have fixed soundboards. The variations in tuning stability, tonal quality, sustain, etc seem to have to do with all kinds of variations in the building of these particular dulcimers... not sure how to pin down the soundboard's effect. One thing is that the Cloud Nines are much heavier... I would guess it's because the floating type requires a sturdier frame.
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Postby ArdieDavis » Tue May 11, 2004 7:30 pm

Thanks, Marcy. Yes, I think floating soundboard dulcimers do tend to be heavier (more substantial?) because in a fixed top/bottom dulcimer the top and bottom are used for both structural and musical purposes. Therefore, the internal bracing can be reduced. I'm not sure one can build a 12-pound floating soundboard dulcimer; they usually come in at 17 or more pounds. Your point about volume is well taken, and I think it has more to do with how the dulcimer is designed than with whether the dulcimer has a fixed or floating soundboard.
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Postby Steve Smith » Wed May 12, 2004 9:05 am

Although I've never owned a floating-soundboard HD, I did have an experience with the builder of one mentioned in this forum. He was setting up for a festival and boasting about how well his $$$ dulcimers held their tuning compared to those of other builders. He then proceeded to put his best one out, which just happened to be horribly out of tune!
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Postby ArdieDavis » Wed May 12, 2004 10:40 am

Steve, Point well taken. Even the best hammered dulcimers can go significantly out of tune because they are new and haven't settled in, have been subjected to wide differences in humidity, etc. I've known of championship fixed tops that have gone ''horribly out of tune,'' too! It's certainly the nature of wooden instruments, whether they are fixed or floating tops. David Lindsey and Dana Hamilton both play floating-soundboard three-stringers that are rock solid with their tuning, so I think the tuning issue can change from instrument to instrument regardless of top. My experience is that a fixed top hammered dulcimer can produce a lighter instrument, and provide a little more initial tuning stability, but I'm not sure there are any other significant advantages. Over time, any well-designed dulcimer will hold its tuning pretty well. One thing I do like about floating soundboards is that they can be replaced, and, I believe, are less subject to splitting due to humidity-induced expansion or contraction.
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A Floating Controversy

Postby Nic Hambas » Wed May 12, 2004 10:58 am

When it comes to the floating vs. fixed top controversy, we may be barking up the wrong tree. The funny thing, to my humble opinion, is that what we call the ''soundboard'' is not even the primary soundboard of the instrument. The other, and, perhaps, more important soundboard is the bottom of the dulcimer, to which few makers pay much attention, although it shares at least half if not more of the business of amplifying sound. This characteristic has long been observed by many players who position a second microphone facing the bottom of the dulcimer when recording or performing through a PA system. A floating soundboard allows a certain flexibility to the dulcimer whereas a fixed soundboard acts as a stiffener. The loudest instruments I have ever heard had floating soundboards. THE loudest dulcimer I've ever heard, was a Greek santuri that had a floating soundboard, of course, but also had a crown on both top and bottom. It was also equipped with quadruple courses of brass strings, but that's a topic for another controversy.
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Postby marcy » Wed May 12, 2004 12:25 pm

Nic, I suppose that's why Jerry Read Smith a) uses tone woods for the bottom (mine's mahogany top and bottom) and b) double arches the soundboard.
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Postby ArdieDavis » Wed May 12, 2004 1:42 pm

Hi Nic, Interesting thought about the back vs the soundboard. Did you know that dulcimer maker Breezy Ridge (John Pearse / Mary Faith Rhoads-Lewis) makes a hammered dulcimer without a back? They say it ''eliminates low frequency rumble giving the instrument an amazing projection and purity of sound.'' They also say it allows for ''close to the soundboard miking from underneath.'' There's a dulcimer maker in the UK that also makes a dulcimer without a back. My experience is that the back can affect musical sound, but the soundboard, and the material it is made of, has the biggest influence on the quality of tone the dulcimer makes. High-quality laminated backs sometimes get a bad rap from solid-wood purists, but surprisingly excellent hammered dulcimers are being made with laminate backs and soundboards. Do I think a solid wood soundboard is noticeably better than a laminate? Yes. Do I think a solid wood back is noticeably better than a laminate? No, at least not in the dulcimers I design. I'm sure there are other thoughts on the significance of the back that other members can contribute.
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Postby SteveK » Wed May 12, 2004 2:31 pm

John Kelly who makes Maple Valley Dulcimers has also made dulcimers without a back. I don't know if he still does. He lives in Michigan and I have tried his dulcimers at the now dufunct Southern Michigan Dulcimer Festival. I don't remember the backless dulcimers being particularly inferior to his other dulcimers but it's been years since I tried them. Steve
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Postby TJ » Wed May 12, 2004 5:02 pm

I have to respectfully disagree with Nic, regarding the relative vibration of the top and bottom. The way it's been explained to me, there are two tradeoffs with any soundboard: flexibility and stiffness. You need the thing to be flexible enough to vibrate with the strings, but stiff enough to not just absorb the vibrations, but to vibrate with them. (I guess its damping characteristics are partly to blame for Silly Putty not to be used in more instruments.) That's why most bracing doesn't lie directly beneath the bridges, because doing so will stop the top from vibrating in that area. Since the bracing is more for stiffening the top, as opposed to coupling the top and bottom acoustically, I wonder how much vibration is actually transmitted to the bottom. Assuming that to be true, although micing the back will get a great tone, I'm not sure the back is really vibrating all that much compared to the top. My suspicion is that the back does little to IMPEDE the sound, as it is leaking all around the edges of the instrument. Probably micing a dulcimer from the center of the soundboard would give great tone, but due to how it is played, such a microphone would get in the way tremendously. Besides the playing advantages, micing from the bottom would also eliminate the sounds of wood-on-metal contact from the hammers/strings. I guess the easiest way to determine the real difference in top/bottom vibration would be to put an identical contact pickup in the center of both the top and the bottom, record both to separate tracks simultaneously, and then to A-B the tracks for the volume and tone. I don't have any contact pickups to try this, though. I suspect that this is also true for other instruments. I have a friend who plays violin, and who tested various locations all over the instrument to get the best tone with one of the new piezofilm pickups. The best area was near the bridge on the top, and the bottom was never in the running for placement after a few tests. I've also thought that volume and sustain were related to both how difficult it is to make the top vibrate, and to how much of the striking is absorbed by the string. A higher tension string will sound louder than a less tensioned one and will have more sustain, all other things being equal. A thinner top is more reponsive than a thicker one, and will absorb less vibration. The tradeoff is that a thinner top will not withstand a highly tensioned string as well as a thicker top. I've heard many well-made classical guitars that put steel-stringed guitars to shame, volume-wise. I can't imagine why one dulcimer design (fixed versus floating) would have an edge over the other, in terms of volume. Is there that much vibration happening at the edges of the soundboard? Wouldn't it be like a loudspeaker, where the drivers (bridges, in this case) would be where the most vibration is happening? Since the string vibration is being transmitted to the soundboard by the bridges, why wouldn't this be the case? I used to tune the dulcimers at a local store, as well as helping folks out at dulcimer festivals, and have found that most instruments keep their tuning once they settle in, regardless of the soundboard type. The main factor that affected all the things Ardie asks about (except replacing the soundboard) is the build quality. A high-end Dusty Strings, Cook, Tack, Jones, or whatever is going to have nicer materials than a low-end dulcimer. Although I haven't really noticed much difference between solid- and laminate-backed instruments, I have noticed a great difference between solid- and laminate-TOPPED instruments. Even instruments from the same line (like the Dusty Strings Apprentice and the D10) were fairly distinguishable when new, and even more so when they had been well used. A laminate instrument will rarely mellow out to as nice a tone as a solid-topped instrument. I had thought that having a soundbox allowed an instrument to generate low end (as the Breezy Ridge comment semi-illustrates). Wouldn't playing a bass note on a backless dulcimer be like having a woofer mounted on a plain board, instead of mounted in an enclosure? The lack of enclosed space can make an instrument sound tinny, like a Martin Backpacker guitar, which has the body volume of a normal mandolin. ++++ When all is said and done, I prefer a fixed-top instrument, purely from an aesthetics point of view. I have never heard the kind of TONE I prefer from a floating-top instrument. I like the Scandanavian furniture look of a fixed-top instrument. I've always thought floating-top instruments looked rustic or old world. How's THAT for something based purely on subjectivity? *laugh*
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Postby marcy » Wed May 12, 2004 5:38 pm

TJ, I like your Scandinavian furniture comment. I actually like an Old World look better than the clean, spare modern line... one of the reasons I bought a Jerry Read Smith. It's a fixed top, but the Old World look (not rustic, but like furniture with turned legs and scalloped edges) comes from the decorative corner scrolls and double soundhole rosettes -- and from the beautifully carved bridges.
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Postby ArdieDavis » Wed May 12, 2004 6:10 pm

TJ, Very good comments and thoughts. I'm curious about your comment regarding tonal differences between the fixed tops you've experienced, and the floating tops. Can you describe the tonal qualities you like in a fixed top?
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